MORE than half the 12,500 Anglican parishes in England have closed their churches to public worship, despite permission to remain open under current Covid-19 lockdown rules.
Rising concern about the risk of spreading the virus has led many clergy and PCCs to suspend services, replacing them with online worship. Other clergy have ended public worship because they, too, are shielding. While standards of bio-security inside churches are generally good, many of the worries focus on the possible mingling before and after services.
Some clergy have complained about having to make the decision themselves; but a C of E spokesman said: “The circumstances in each place will inform a local decision. While many churches have decided to offer digital services only for the time being, others are continuing to remain open in a Covid-secure way, for individual prayer and public worship.
“We urge everyone to be exceptionally cautious, and, in particular, to do everything possible to prevent mingling outside of households and support bubbles. We acknowledge and share the sadness many are feeling at not being able to meet together as we would usually do at the moment, and prayerfully and confidently look forward to better times ahead.
“The indications we’ve had are that more than half of parishes are currently offering online worship only for the time being, and that is growing. It also varies by diocese, and, in some areas, it is apparently much more.”
All places of worship in Scotland are closed on the instructions of the Scottish government, while Northern Ireland’s main church denominations have chosen to halt public worship until early February.
Interviewed on the BBC Newscast podcast, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said: “The principle in this part of the world is local decisions within the law are right for local situations.” Many of the diocese’s small churches have been closed for several weeks, and now the city’s cathedral, the country’s largest, has shut.
“It’s a huge place, and so you can get quite a lot of people in with social distancing,” the Bishop said, “but, because of the new variant of the virus, the folks in charge of the cathedral decided that now is the right time to close it for public worship and for private prayer, until we are sure the virus is under control. Numbers are shooting up here in the north-west, and so we thought it was sensible to do.
“There comes a moment when you just have to think: we really must discourage people from mixing and mingling on their way in and out. In the end, you have just got to do what you think is the right thing to do. We have just got to respond to local situations.”
There was confusion in East Sussex last week when, late on Thursday evening, the Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd William Hazlewood, with the agreement of the diocesan Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, ordered churchwardens to close places of worship. The next day, this was downgraded to a “request”.
A statement from the diocese said that East Sussex parishes had been asked to “voluntarily suspend attendance at public worship” until Covid cases declined across the county. It continued: “Whilst acknowledging the wonderful efforts that clergy and laity have made to make our churches Covid-secure the request is that we cease public worship within them until the infection rates decrease. Churches can remain open for prayer and funerals can still take place.”
Bishop Hazlewood said that he acted after talks with the head of environmental health for the Rother and Wealden districts, who had consulted the director of public health and East Sussex County Council after advice from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Trevor Butler, the churchwarden of St Thomas at Cliffe, in Lewes, which is currently in vacancy, said: “I know many who visit our ancient and historic sanctuary for peace and healing will be devastated. Every day we welcome dozens of people, and have seen a noticeable upturn in visitor numbers during these dark days of coronavirus.”
His church had already suspended Sunday worship, but does not provide online services. It is open for private prayer, and has a daily cleaning regime using specialist cleaners and a hand-sanitising station.
“We have had at least two people in the last fortnight who are struggling with mental problems that are leading them to suicidal thoughts,” Mr Butler said. “One man left us to go for a life-or-death meeting with his doctor; so we know we are providing a valuable service which is needed now more than it has been for as long as anyone can remember.”
At least 22 cathedrals, including Ely, Lincoln, Peterborough, Rochester, St Paul’s, Salisbury, Southwark, Christ Church, Oxford, York Minster, and Peel, on the Isle of Man, had also either closed or suspended public worship by the end of last week, and another 11 are limiting services (News, 11 January).
At Lincoln, the Precentor, Canon Nick Brown, said that the decision was taken “with a very heavy heart”. He explained: “To bring people together in worship is at the very heart of our purpose, but having considered expert advice we believe that the best way to help limit the spread of Covid-19 is to suspend public services for the time being.”
The Chapter of Southwark said in a statement: “In other lockdowns we simply did what we were told to do, in law or guidance. This is a different situation in which we can legally stay open for public worship and private prayer but in which we are being asked . . . to voluntarily close to reduce the number of occasions when people meet. This had to be a Chapter decision.”
Several cathedrals, including Blackburn, Lichfield, and Salisbury, have converted to mass-vaccination centres. The Dean of Blackburn, the Very Revd Peter Howell-Jones, said: “It is only right that in times of national crisis we offer our building as a safe and accessible space for this exciting vaccination programme, and be here to serve the nation in these times of deep uncertainty and fear.”